Tom Lake
Grade : A

Set in the crucible of Spring 2020, as the pandemic’s grip tightened, Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake is a marvel. The narrative takes place over a few weeks on a family farm–echoes of Chekhov’s cherry orchard–in Michigan, where Lara Kenison, her husband, and their three adult daughters labor amidst the lockdown’s restraint. As the book begins, Lara is telling the story of the summer of her twenty-fourth year, a season she spent acting in summer theater and falling in love with famed actor Peter Duke.

Like all parental stories about their youth, the tale Lara tells is curated for her children, each of whom brings their own perspectives and life experiences to the story. Emily, the oldest, was terrifyingly obsessed with Duke as a wildly difficult teen. She now is about to marry her childhood love from the farm next door and aspires to uphold the orchard’s legacy. The youngest, Nell, an actress whom the pandemic has sidelined, yearns for the far-off footlights. Middle child Maisie, in vet school, spends the few hours she spends away from the cherry trees mending creatures and their wounds. Orbiting these four women is Joe, Lara’s husband, an lovely man who treasures Lara, his daughters, and the farm with equal intensity.

The time Lara spent in Tom Lake, Michigan where she plays both Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and May in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, shapes her life in ways overt–these her daughters think they already know–and subtle. One of the many pleasures of this novel are the moments where Lara breaks the wall between the narrator she is as she spins out the past to her daughters and, instead, speaks to the reader. Lara reveals the hidden pages of her past, unraveled with a candor that lays bare the truth of those few months. Through her lens, we peer into the wings of community theater, her voyage from childhood dreams to the slings and arrows of an adult actor’s reality. Over 318 pages, we see how the loves, losses, disappointments, and insights she experienced that summer created the content and insightful woman she has become.

Patchett’s prose is measured, quiet, and powerful. Love and family, ambition and the crossroads they conspire to create, motherhood and the labyrinth of the mind—all are meticulously intertwined. By the end, the reader is rewarded with a quiet harmony, a resolution that unfurls with remarkable grace.

Tom Lake gives us a  slow and purposeful unveiling of lives lived within the embrace of both the mundane and the transcendent. Serious topics–the terror of global warming, the fragile economics of farming, the challenges of parenting–are tucked into lives full of meaning, even joy. I loved almost every moment of this book, so caught up was I in Lara’s lives, both as a wild twenty-four year old actress and as a fifty-seven year old woman sure of the choices she’s made and the life she’s created.

At one point, Lara tells her girls,

There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well.

In this poignant novel, we are fortunate that this is not true. Lara does indeed remember the past and oh what a joy it is to read.

Reviewed by Dabney Grinnan

Grade: A

Book Type: Fiction

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : August 20, 2023

Publication Date: 08/2023

Review Tags: theater

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Dabney Grinnan

Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day. Publisher at AAR.
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